Christian Living


Specific Ways to Work on Your Grief

CBN.com Authors Susan J. Zonnebelt-Smeenge and Robert C. De Vries, both of whom lost spouses before marrying each other, are grief counselors. In their book, Traveling Through Grief, they offer these suggestions to help you work through the stages of grief and find healing.

Recognize that all the feelings associated with the death of your loved one, such as anger, guilt, sadness, remorse, and relief, are normal. Grieving people are often embarrassed to openly express their feelings because they fear others will think they are “losing it.” If you are grieving, you might even think that you’re going crazy. Be assured that any feeling is okay unless you are feeling actively suicidal; that is, if you have a plan and intend to act on it. If that is the case, you need to contact your doctor or grief therapist, or go to the emergency room to get immediate help.

Be “real” rather than trying to cover up your feelings. Don’t pretend. Expressing emotions is a healthy thing to do. Find a supportive person who is a caring listener. Emotions and tears are a normal part of grieving, so don’t worry about what other people will think or may want from you. When asked, for example, “How are you doing?” have the courage to say something like, “It is such a struggle for me to live without [name]” or “I’m feeling sad so much of the time.” By doing this you are being congruent.

Purchase a journal and write in it on a regular basis to record your thoughts and feelings in one place. Write down what you think and feel about what is happening. Write something like “I feel [name of feeling] about [whatever it is] because [the reason, if you know what it is].” Remember, your writing doesn’t have to be grammatically correct. No one else will read it. But journaling helps you validate your feelings, identify and sort through what you think and feel, guide some of your necessary grief work, recall what you have already worked through so you can see your progress when you read earlier entries, and do some important problem solving. Journaling will also help you understand that all your feelings are legitimate—not right or wrong— and that they will probably decrease or change over time and will eventually become only a memory.

Letter writing is another form of journaling that provides an excellent emotional outlet whether you intend to send the letter or not. You can write directly to the deceased or to others who were involved with the deceased, such as medical personnel, a spiritual caregiver, the funeral director, or your relatives, to express your thoughts and feelings to them. You will gain more self-awareness by doing this, and you will deepen your understanding of your grief. This activity can help dissipate and neutralize your negative feelings. We recommend you write a letter to your deceased loved one on all the significant days (such as holidays, the deceased’s birthday, the anniversary of the death, and so on). Then go to the cemetery or a special location to read it out loud.

Put yourself in situations that may trigger grief even though this may be painful. This is “doing the tough stuff.” Grieving people are often afraid of doing things that might make them cry, particularly around other people. Yet, if you do not eventually face these things, you will prolong your grief. Giving power to a situation, place, or activity because you are afraid to face it allows that thing to have a degree of control over your life. Remember, being easy on yourself is a form of avoidance. Give yourself permission to back off at times, but not for the long term. When you have a spurt of energy, grasp the opportunity to face something that will be emotionally challenging. Plan specific times to do something related to your loved one that will make you cry. Crying will help you get out feelings and feel better.

If you are still planning the funeral events, know that the funeral process can both allow for and elicit feelings in ways that are beneficial for you. Separating the funeral events, as we discussed before, gives you an opportunity to emotionally absorb the reality of the death and express your feelings. If the funeral has already occurred, replay the events in your mind, or look at funeral mementoes and journal your experiences as a way to further release your emotions.

Carefully consider the use of medications (anti-depressants, anti-anxiety agents, or sleeping aids) to help you deal with your grief. The attitude that society has to make it “easier” on everyone is actually counterproductive to getting through grief. Sometimes society behaves as though a person just needs to take a pill to fix things. That certainly isn’t the case with grief. The more alert and aware you can be throughout the entire grief process, the more helpful it will be for your grief journey. Of course, even without the use of medications, usually a layer of numbness will initially protect you from an emotional intensity greater than you can tolerate. However, if after a month or so following the death you still have difficulty getting a  minimum of five hours of sleep a night or getting out of bed in the morning, or have to exert a great deal of effort to perform daily tasks of living or go to work as needed, an anti-depressant may be necessary to help you function better. Medications don’t give anyone permission to avoid dealing with grief. They cannot take the place of grief work or blot out your feelings. But some people do need the help of medications to initially give them the motivation to work through the grief tasks. Medications are definitely necessary if you are feeling actively suicidal. If you have any questions about your own use of medications while grieving, we encourage you to consult your physician and grief therapist (if you are in therapy).

Use pictures, videos, and stories of the funeral events and of your prior relationship with the deceased to express your emotions. Reviewing pictures, mementoes, cards, letters, and the like can help trigger your feelings during your entire grief process. Remember that eliciting these feelings helps empty the receptacle, which ultimately contributes to healing the pain of grief.

Attend a grief support program at your funeral home or one sponsored by another agency or faith community in your area. Many cities have chapters of AARP’s Grief and Loss programs (including services for those widowed), Compassionate Friends for child loss, THEOS programs (To Help Each Other Spiritually), and bereavement support groups and workshops sponsored by hospice organizations, all to help you cope with your loss. Local hospitals, churches, and synagogues in your vicinity may also offer grief support services. If you are not aware of the resources available in your area, check with your funeral director or a leader in your faith community.

Susan Zonnebelt-Smeenge and Robert C. De Vries are the authors of Traveling through Grief (Baker Books, 2006), from which this article is excerpted. Susan is a licensed clinical psychologist working for Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services, and Robert is emeritus professor of church education at Calvin Theological Seminary and an ordained pastor. They are the authors of Getting to the Other Side of Grief, The Empty Chair, and Living Fully in the Shadow of Death. They live in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Used with permission of Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group.

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